Europe Must Accept Being at War

Accustomed to post WW2 peacetime, European politicians refuse to think about the war as state and as a process with its own political, social and economic dynamics. This breeds strategic myopia and tactical confusion.

The European Union is a peaceful alliance — yet it is a brainchild of people who understood war intimately. They understood that a moral and political claim of “never again”, which sounded after the World War I had ended, proved insufficient for bringing lasting peace. Instead, they opted to create an underlying system of economic interdependence in strategic resources (coal and steel, first), which, in time, grew a political super-structure fine-tuned to break down the incentive-based components of conflict into bite-size pieces, digestible by European institutions, without engendering armed hostilities.

The resulting political system has brought a considerable period of peace across the western parts of the continent. One is tempted to assume, that the EU’s arcane, slow and technical nature is not a bug, but a feature: fights over the shape of a banana or a size of anchovies are unlikely to escalate into a military conflict. Yet, this ‘bureaucratic peace’ has also bred a generation of politicians that are not accustomed to thinking about war as a political, economic and social process, and — especially — not imagining it happening on their own territory.

The much-repeated European mantra of “there is no military solution to conflict” is profoundly misleading: of course, all ‘solutions’ to inter-state and even in-state conflicts are political in nature. But wars — military action — create conditions that make to certain kinds of outcomes more likely than the others. Therefore, by supporting the Kremlin’s interpretation and maintaining frozen conflicts in Russia’s neighborhood without resolution, European Union has become an often inept party to the series of military solutions imposed by Moscow.

This is the price the Western Europe was paying for the comfort of maintaining the peace-time mentality — it traded space on the European periphery for the time required for its central engine to generate economic power, giving it resilience to — hopefully — outlast any opposition without ever having to enter an armed conflict (especially, as the military re-insurance tab was picked by the US).

However, as the war in Ukraine demonstrates, it is hard to claim being at peace, when your opponent is waging war at you. Even though almost three months have passed since Russia’s brutal, full-scale invasion into Ukraine, many European leaders still manage to claim, that “war has returned to Europe” and “we are not at war” in the same breath. This statement would have been reprehensible, if it was simply disingenuous, bit it is dangerous, since the belief is often sincere.

As the so called “peace plan” apparently suggested by Italy, and the continued overtures by President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Olaf Scholz towards the Kremlin show, the Western European leaders cannot help projecting themselves to the period “after the war” — for the war for them is an aberration, while the peace is normal. Not only this is a belief backed up by very selective historical memory, but it is also in a dangerous disconnect from the mindset of their opponent. For Mr. Putin, his siloviki clique and, unfortunately, many ordinary Russians, the war is a constant, while peace is a period to adjust, regroup and counterattack.

To become more efficient and effective in negotiating with Putin, and in achieving lasting peace, the European leaders should stop projecting towards “after the war”, but first focus on a situation that we are in now — the situation of war. As the immense body of research indicates, the war is one of the most historically ordinary states of human social existence, and it is a process which creates its own systems of incentives. Just because most of this research has been done on other continents, does not mean we, Europeans, are immune from its conclusions or will them away.

The socio-economic effects of war are most obviously shown by the massive flow of refugees. The Europeans are still seeing this mostly through the prism of charity, but the effects are likely to be lasting. Previous waves of refugees from Russia and eastern Europe have affected the Western world profoundly, and not only in negative ways — think about all the artists and writers that fled the Russian revolution to enrich what we know recognize as European culture. The Ukrainian refugees, who are likely to settle in Eastern and Central Europe are likely to affect the demographics and may even rejuvenate economies, that are running out of steam after many young people and professionals have left to seek better lives in Western Europe.

But there are other effects too. Food shortages are another pressing concern, and it may yet force Europe to take military measures to restore supply of grain through the Black Sea — after all, there is a purely humanitarian duty to do so. Letting the Kremlin push for concessions on sanctions in return for lifting the grain blockade he himself imposed, would be the most blatant indication of ignoring the reality of war he is waging.

Then there is military industry. Ukraine already consumes military supplies at a massive scale, and further substantial investment in rearmament of Eastern flank is already spreading to Europe’s core. This will affect the structure of economy. After all, the military technology has been driving economic progress in Europe for centuries and both French and German military suppliers are seeing their order lists fill up fast. The wartime military industry requires, as one French military analyst ironically noted, not the “single masterpieces of artisanal art” but mass-produced, yet modern weapons that can give Europe the necessary edge in conventional conflict, in quantities sufficient to deter the Kremlin.

And lastly, the Central and Easter European countries that already have war at their doorstep will change their incentive structures accordingly and dramatically. The perception of war changes attitudes towards investment and casts rationality in a completely different light. Quintessentially central European Austria scrapped its air-raid shelters sometime in late 1980s to see WW2-style war being waged just 500 kilometers drive from its border.

For an Italian or French man doing a career, say, in the banking sector an idea of being conscribed to the army is still distant, outlandish and perhaps even outrageous. His Polish and Czech colleague may see things quite differently already. They also see the future of their children in a much more different light than before February 24. These mindsets and choices will affect democratic political systems. Think Switzerland or Finland during WW2. How would — or should — Europe react to a Ukrainian or Polish Mannerheim at the European Council meeting? Many have mocked Emmanuel Macron for sporting a hoodie with special forces insignia few weeks after Russian invasion, but how long until we see a Western European leader donning the uniform for real?

All of these are some basic questions and incentives that war has already created. It will create more. Ukraine is currently Europe’s bulwark and the first line of defense. Ignoring this simple fact is already pulling Europe apart — compare the British-Polish-Nordic alliances that are increasingly on the war footing, with peace plans from Rome, Paris and Berlin. The first step the politicians should make towards ending this war is admitting its reality.

The leaders have a responsibility to tell their citizens that these changes will persist until the war that Mr. Putin is waging on Europe — not on Ukraine, or Mr. Zelenskyy’s government — is won. The acceptance of the reality of war on Europe and the objective of collective victory needs to be factored into European leaders’ decision-making before mindlessly — just because peace is of a positive moral value — extending the olive branch to Mr. Putin and especially before leaning on Ukraine to cede “its” land for “our” peace. Russia is at war with Europe. It can’t strive for peace without first accepting this fact.

Jaba Devdariani is a co-founder (in 2001) and editor-in-chief of Civil.ge, Georgia's information and analysis magazine. He worked as an international civil servant in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia from 2003 to 2011 and consults with governments and international institutions on risk management and conflict resolution. He is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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